"I'm a squatter," declared Anna Marie Codario, who remains on the land despite government foreclosure on her farm. "I want my land back and compensation for the 22 years I have fought to get it back."
Codario and Mary Ordille, two farmers in Atlantic County, New Jersey, and Mary Visconti, a farmer in nearby Cumberland County, filed claims in 1997 against the USDA for sex discrimination. A few years ago they learned about the fight being waged by farmers who are Black against racist discrimination by the USDA and contacted them. The three women joined that struggle and have spoken at several rallies organized by the Black Farmers and Agriculturists Association and the National Black Farmers Association.
"We have always supported the Black farmers. We are in the same boat," said Codario. "We went to Washington in support of all farmers who have suffered discrimination from FSA," said Ordille.
The FSA (Farm Service Agency) is an agency of the USDA. It replaced the Farmers Home Administration (FmHA), which loaned money to farmers who could not qualify for conventional loans from banks and other lending institutions, and was seen by many farmers as the "lender of last resort," Codario explained.
"In 1910 my grandfather and father came from Sicily, Italy, to Landisville, New Jersey, to farm vegetables," said Codario.. "I have worked on the family farm since I was six and was trained by my father."
In 1972 Codario's brother, Angelo DeFelice, owned the farm. "He lost the entire crop of about 125 acres valued at $100,000 due to a wet spring, Hurricane Agnes, and heavy hail. The next year hail damaged 80 acres of fruit and he lost another $100,000 in revenues," Codario explained. He received a paltry $5,000 from the FmHA as disaster relief payment for one year.
"I couldn't even buy a pack of cigarettes," DeFelice said. These disasters forced him to borrow from the FmHA for operational and other expenses. His troubles continued with low crop prices and bad weather.
The FmHA accelerated the payment schedule on his loan in 1976 -77, began foreclosing on the farm, and denied him loan services to restructure his debts. In 1977, Codario applied for an FmHA loan to purchase 127 acres of the family farm to prevent the foreclosure. She had taught school since 1958 while still working on the farm, then left her teaching job to start farming full-time.
"From the beginning of my contact with Farmers Home Administration, I was denied servicing, due process, and support on the basis of my sex," she explained. "The FSA representatives were annoyed that I jumped in to help my brother.
"When I met with the FmHA county supervisor, his opening remark to me was 'You're a school teacher, what do you know about farming,'" Codario said. "I had ruined the plans of some farmers and the FmHA to get their hands on our land."
Codario said the county supervisor denied her request for a full mortgage package through the FmHA at 5 percent interest. Instead, half the mortgage was placed through the Federal Land Bank (FLBA), at variable interest, which at times reached 9 percent, increasing her payments substantially.
"In July 1978, I planted 50 acres of fall vegetables. My farm plan was prepared as a prerequisite to signing my mortgage payment," Codario said. Income on the harvest was low due to low market prices, but she paid the bank and FmHA mortgages for 1978.
In August 1979, hail destroyed her fall crop, forcing her to miss the mortgage payment due in January 1980. No one at FmHA advised me that disaster relief payments were available due to the loss of my fall crop at anytime in 1979 or 1980," said Codario.
"The mortgage with FLBA was always current but when I fell behind with FmHA the state director insisted I pay FmHA the arrears, instead of advising me of the moratorium program," she said.
The moratorium allows farmers experiencing disaster conditions to defer payments to the FmHA, giving them time to get their finances in better shape. "When I went to the FmHA for the moratorium they denied it existed," said Codario.
Meanwhile, operating costs for seeds, fertilizer, and pesticides were rising while prices she received for produce were falling below the cost of production.
In the fall of 1980, Codario sold her parsley crop and later that year stopped farming. She was bankrupt, her car was repossessed, and telephone disconnected.
She landed a job at the New Jersey Department of Agriculture the following year and was informed by the FmHA county supervisor that he would begin foreclosure proceedings. In February 1982, the federal agency informed her that the loan repayment schedule was being accelerated and the FmHA state director claimed she "was not a legitimate farmer."
The Federal Land Bank, which had a lien on the property, foreclosed on the farm in 1984 and the FmHA purchased the farm and placed it in its inventory. "I was forced into foreclosure because of the lack of servicing by the FmHA as well as being forced to pay them the money I had saved for my first mortgage," Codario asserted.
"I have been actively complaining about FmHA's discriminatory treatment of me," said Codario. "Those county agents knew Angelo was in trouble and they were like buzzards honing in on the farm."
"Because we raised so much Cain we're still living on our land. They've taken everything else," declared Mary Visconti, a vegetable farmer. "I'm a squatter also," she added referring to the statement by Codario.
Visconti has been involved in farming for nearly 40 years, which included working on the farm owned by her mother and father. She and her husband John obtained a loan from the FmHA and purchased some 195 acres of farmland in Cumberland County, New Jersey, in 1977.
Shortly after they received the title to their farm Visconti says the former FmHA district director declared, "I don't know how you got this farm, it was already promised. I'm going to see that you lose this farm." In the summer of 1979 the FmHA district director and the county supervisor visited the farm. "In voices loud enough for our laborers to hear, they began accusing us of being delinquent in our payments to FmHA," said Visconti. "At this point the men stopped packing and began listening intently. We had to convince them they would get paid."
In 1978 and 1979 the Viscontis lost about $80,000 because of weather conditions. When they applied for an emergency loan in 1980, the county agents "insisted that it was poor management on our part and that we should not be granted the loan," Visconti explained.
When the loan was finally granted it was too late to plant spring crops. This loss of income together with low yields and low prices pushed them behind in payments on the FmHA loan.
In 1982 the Viscontis were forced to put up their farm vehicles and farm equipment as collateral to apply for another emergency loan. They said that the FmHA district director attempted to stall the loan by claiming the titles submitted on the equipment had been lost. He insisted the Viscontis get replacement titles or they would be denied the loan. The loan was finally approved at an astronomical 16 percent interest rate.
The district director also put himself in the position of having the sole authority to release checks on the produce sold by the Viscontis. Vineland Produce Market, which bought their crops, would not issue checks to them. "I would sometimes have to sit in the office for hours until he gave the permission to sign the checks," said Visconti. "It was stressful and humiliating. I would see other people come in to have their checks signed and go out while I was still waiting."
In 1988, the Viscontis filed for bankruptcy "because we kept getting threats from the FmHA. We continued to farm, although the farming became a single operation for me when my husband became disabled in 1989."
The farm experienced more weather disasters in 1990 and 1992. "We were awarded disaster payments," Visconti explained. "At one meeting with the FSA I asked to assume the mortgage and they asked who would sign with me. I told them at my age, 47, that wasn't necessary." When she asked whether as a woman she should be considered a minority, the FSA official remarked, 'you're the wrong color.' "
The FSA has withheld the disaster relief check pending an appeal with the National Appeal staff. "They bang you down so bad," said Visconti. "No one has unlimited funds to fight the government."
In 1993, they lost title to their farm when it was foreclosed on by the first mortgage holder, Equitable Life Assurance Society. "I was always current with Equitable," Visconti explained. "But the government forced us into foreclosure" by denying much needed servicing.
"I have filed numerous complaints of discrimination on the basis of my sex, female, and national origin, Italian American, against the USDA for violations of the Equal Opportunity Act of 1972 and numerous other statutes," Visconti stated. In 1987, she sought out Codario and they linked their struggles together to defend their right to farm.
Visconti said her son John has tried to make a go of farming but also faces discrimination by USDA officials. For three years he has applied for loans but has not received any aid.
"Why is our government so determined to destroy us?" asked Mary Ordille of Hammonton, New Jersey. "We have all suffered far too long and at a very high cost to our lives, families, and financial stability. This should not have happened to people who only wanted to work hard to better themselves and their families."
Ordille said filing a discrimination claim with the USDA's Office of Civil Rights had become "another bureaucratic nightmare, similar to the one in the FSA."
For six years Ordille and her husband Richard had rented a 72-acre farm, which had 42 acres of blueberries. She worked the farm while her husband worked another full-time job at Atlantic Electric as a field supervisor. When the owner decided to sell the property in 1982 for $175,000, the couple decided to apply for a loan to buy the farm.
"There were farmers who wanted our land," Ordille explained. One farmer who owned the adjacent land offered the sellers $10,000 more, raising the purchasing price to $185,000, she said. He was the brother of the Atlantic County FmHA supervisor at the FSA office. The farmer on the other side of Ordille's farm was a board member at the FSA office in Mays Landing.
Ordille explained how this maneuvering alarmed her and her husband so they asked for their loan application to be processed at another FSA office. The county supervisor at the other FSA office demanded that she and a her husband be co-applicants for the loan. The Ordilles had asked that Mary be the sole applicant, since she would tend to the farm while her husband worked his regular job.
"For six years I had worked hard, but we had no idea of the nightmare the next 16 years would bring to our family," she remarked.
The terms of the FmHA loan included interest of 13.25 percent and the Ordilles were forced to put up their home and the farm as collateral, a total of $375,000 to secure a $185,000 loan. "I do not believe that we would have been treated that way if I was not a female and the principal operator of the farm," she explained.
From 1982 to 1985 the farm operations were successful. In 1987, however, a bad freeze cut production by 50 percent. Ordille, Codario, and Visconti were never informed by FSA officials about disaster relief programs, grants, moratoriums, or set-asides to offset bad weather conditions. Only later did they learn that other area farmers were given these servicing options and that they had been treated differently. In 1988, the crop did not recover from the previous years' freeze and the Ordilles fell behind in mortgage payments. They succeeded in getting the interest reduced to 8.25 percent. Later they won approval for a farm program that gave them a new mortgage rate of 5 percent. But the FSA officials stalled on granting the new rate and the interest on the loan continued to accrue. Two years after being approved for the program, the FSA had still refused to grant them the new rate and the interest on the FmHA loan ballooned to $14,000.
The FSA continued their machinations. At a meeting in 1990, Ordille said a FSA agent proposed they have someone buy the farm or take over the mortgage. The agent further suggested selling it to the son of the FSA board member whose farm was adjacent to theirs. Faced with mounting pressures of foreclosure, the Ordilles applied for a conveyance deal in 1994, which would transfer the title of the farm to the FSA. The agreement would allow them to keep their home, which was not on farm property. The county supervisor sent instructions, Ordille said, insisting they sell their farm equipment before the conveyance could be considered.
Meanwhile, the FSA had the farm appraised at $283,000, a price that was too high for the prospective buyer who had hoped to get good land at a cheap price. Ordille said the FmHA district director said they had to sell their home to pay off the FSA debt before he would consider the conveyance. In 1995 the Ordilles sold their farm equipment and completed the sale of the farm in 1998.
"We paid the FSA a total of $370,712.36 to pay a $185,000 loan and still have a balance due of $90,000," said Ordille. "You could get a better deal from a loan shark."
Ordille heard about the battles waged by Codario and Visconti in the local papers and decided to join their struggle. "We need to bring this out in the media in Washington, D.C., so our government officials will take notice and stop ruining our lives," she said.
All three women stated their intentions to continue fighting for their right to farm. "I can honestly say I will not give up my fight for what is due my family and me otherwise there will not be any family farms left," said Visconti.
"I intend to make this whole thing as public as possible, reach out to other farmers, and pressure the government to give us back our land," Codario stated. "The Black farmers did not get their settlement and we have not gotten ours either."
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